Jeff Costa has had his photograph on fitness DVDs and Cracker Jack prizes, but he ensures that he is not the face of Sangha New Bedford — the yoga community on Purchase Street which he co-founded. Costa, a personal trainer, wellness expert, and fitness, meditation, and yoga instructor, instead emphasizes the vitality of a group of people and faces.

A Dartmouth native and Boston University alum, Costa said he fell in love with human movement in college at a time when the line between dance and fitness was beginning to blur. Working in Boston and then Los Angeles, Costa led a variety of fitness classes, worked as a celebrity trainer, and pioneered new body-leveraging exercises. 

After returning to the South Coast, Costa eventually turned to yoga and completed two 200-hour training programs and began leading yoga classes at a gym in New Bedford. Now, at his 2-year-old studio Sangha New Bedford, Costa heads a team of nine instructors in a variety of classes and practices.

Here, Costa talked to The Light about the power of community — from his free summer yoga classes in Fairhaven’s Cushman Park, to the importance of an inclusive atmosphere in a yoga studio, to his involvement in New Bedford beyond Sangha. 

New Bedford Light: When did you start teaching yoga?

Jeff Costa: 2013. So I started in 1989 teaching aerobics … we had record players, and a gymnasium, and 75 coeds running around the gym or flipping the record, and then coming back and doing more jumping jacks and high kicks. Yeah, yeah. So it was an interesting journey. And right now, I only teach yoga and meditation — in a group or private.

NBL: When did you open Sangha New Bedford?

JC: OK, another cute story. [Sangha New Bedford] was set to open on my 50th birthday in March of 2020. And on the 13th of the month, they said, “No, no, everybody stay home.” And this space sat empty for a whole year. And I thought, “Oh, of course, right. You open a studio and then there’s a pandemic.”

A year later, it was Easter, April 4 of 2021, we opened with one class a day [taught by] me. I think it was six days a week, everybody in masks, limited to 10 people in the room. We just followed those guidelines and did that for the first year. 

And then in September of 2021, things started to open back up. We know there’s been some ups and downs since then, but we were able to have nine instructors and a membership where people can just go and register for the class, the app. And then it started to feel like what I had experienced for 35 years in a studio program. 

But the truth be told, even though we get 75 or 100 people out in [Cushman] Park, there’s still a shift in people’s patterns that is noticeable. I think if you speak to the theater people, the movies people, anything that’s group oriented, that there may be some people that never come back and are happy to be on Zoom or be on a video. And that’s great. But we’re here. We’re here, we’re open. And we have over 80 classes a month.

NBL: You spoke about losing some of your interest in fitness, and wanting to get into yoga and teaching yoga. But what drew you to come back to New Bedford, especially after so long in California and the success you’ve found there?

JC: I grew up in Dartmouth. My family was all here … The dream came true in LA. Traveling the world, making too much money. Everyone’s saying, “OK, what did you do? Because that’s what I want to do.” And I’m like, “I didn’t do anything. I just show up to teach.” [Living in California] ran its course. I came home, back around my family thinking I’m going to teach kids — my degree is English or French. I thought maybe that would be what would call me. But no, the movement industry wasn’t ready to let go.

NBL: You’ve led yoga retreats in places like Costa Rica and Bali. How does location play into the practice of yoga, especially a location like Cushman Park or New Bedford?

JC: [It is] so very different actually to think about the South Coast, to think about being out in nature and the outdoor programs, which I think have an additional layer of wellbeing. That there’s something in us that relates to nature, that brings up the best in us, and also allows us to down-register our nervous system. 

So I’ll often say, to climb the mountain top, and be alone, and find enlightenment … and you don’t have to do anything other than meditate, that’s great. But we are householders. We live not on a mountaintop but in the marketplace. And so it’s quiet [in the studio] today. We’re in the heart of the heart of downtown. There’s a lot of noise, whether it’s seagulls or sirens. And to utilize that [noise] as a tool to go deeper inside [oneself], rather than to stay at the surface and complain, criticize, judge. 

We can close our eyes and tune out of sight, but we can’t turn off our ears. So letting the fact that we are in the heart of the downtown be a stronger tool or technology, so that when you’re in the busyness of your day, if you’ve come [to the studio] and learned how to take one skillful breath … [learned how] to turn and shift in another direction [so] that you [can] honor who you really are, and that you’re actually honoring the other person, too … to maybe have enough practice in our lives to respond with a little bit more kindness and grace.

NBL: How and when did you begin leading yoga sessions in Cushman Park?

JC: You stumbled upon us in our 11th year. And my partner there is a woman named Susan Grace, who owns Encore Entertainment. And she started as a student of mine in fitness classes — she’ll say, “it was love at first plank.” And after knowing her for less than a year, she asked me, “Would you want to teach this program?” And at that time, I wasn’t even yoga certified. I was only teaching fitness and I said, “Yeah, I’ll do a boot camp in Cushman Park, great.” Not knowing whether 10 people will show up. And for bootcamp, you’d get 40 people, 50 people, and another woman was teaching yoga. 

And after a year or two, we went our separate ways maybe because I became yoga certified. And I thought, well, I’ll teach the yoga [classes]. And we hired Wayne Goulart — who’s now been with us for I think eight or nine years — to do boot camp. And he also has his own facility now called Body by Wayne in the North End. And so it’s just been this exponential win for the community where sponsors compensate for the cost [and] the advertising, the teachers are paid a living wage, and the community gets to come for free. Every class, [there] is a shout out to the sponsors … I think of Debbie Allen in the musical Fame where she’d say, “This is where you start paying in sweat.” Yes. Without the students, without the community showing up, we have no class. 

Jeff Costa has been offering free yoga at Cushman Park in Fairhaven for 11 years. Credit: India Claudy / The New Bedford Light

But 11 years later, I guess something is working. People share it with their family and friends, and they pay in sweat, but they pay by saying thank you. And it’s worked. But there was no blueprint for me that said it was going to work. I just trusted Sue, I was in the area, [and] thought why not?

NBL: Are there people who have come for 11 years?

JC:​​ There are some people that have been around this whole time. But I’ll say since that time, you know, New Bedford is burgeoning. And there’s a yoga class in every park and every beach. I teach three myself outdoors in the summer. We’ve got the short season. And I think it’s something that the community actually looks forward to. I do think it’s like a draw. But you can go to Providence, Boston. You can go to any city, and this is happening.

NBL: What kind of differences do you find between doing yoga in the studio, in this very serene space versus doing it outside in a differently serene space?

JC: I guess the difference between indoors and outdoors for me is that outdoors, we’re casting a wide net, there are people who are there for the very first class [and] never have done yoga. There’s people that show up in a chair to do chair yoga. We want it to be gentle, accessible. All I care is that people walk away saying, “I felt better at the end than I did when I started.” 

And there’s a YES energy of “I can do this.” Versus you’re the Tin Man, and the teacher says, “OK, we’re going to touch our toes,” and you can bend over just a few inches, and you say, “I suck at this. Yoga is not for me.” And I say, “if that’s what you’re experiencing in yoga, go find a different teacher, because I’m not the teacher for everybody.”

So I think through this law of attraction, [I] attract the people that are right to learn with me. And for me, I’m Kripalu certified and accessible-yoga certified, which means that if you want to do a split, you can. If you can’t get there yet, let’s give you several steps so that you can feel successful in the transition of growing your strength, growing your flexibility, or growing your inner peace … your inner calm. But I think the mind-body component of it for me is why we built the studio. There is a safe space, a safe container for people to take a little risk. 

Brene Brown says risk is a good thing. It increases our courage, increases the vulnerability, but also the successful outcome of [trying it]. So in the studio, there are chair classes, there are classes for people with Parkinson’s, which is supported by the APDA of Massachusetts. There is LGBTQ classes. There are paid classes, free classes, men’s classes. So to create as much diversity that this space becomes more than a studio. As you can see, it’s like 3,500 square feet where there are practitioners doing healing arts and private one-on-ones and group classes. And it attracts that diverse, inclusive, accessible person.

NBL: Would you say that this inclusive nature is pretty natural to yoga as a practice or more something that you’ve worked to ingrain into your studio?

JC: I think it’s very unique to Sangha. I think most yoga studios, power yoga studios, are for a very small niche of people. They’re young, mostly white, able-bodied, affluent, possibly blond women. Cisgendered women. Great. That’s 80% of the people that do yoga, and that’s great. 

But what we’re trying to do is [include] people of color, LGBTQ, [and so that] income doesn’t become an issue. We have discounts for drop-ins. We have sponsor scholarships for people who maybe can’t pay for their own classes. There’s other people who can pay. And it’s been a year [of this model], so this is the idea. 

And I will say that although it’s been baby steps, it’s manifested. There are people of color that come here, there are people who speak English as a second language, there’s a student who is legally blind, a student who is legally deaf. And we accommodate all of that because that’s the big “why.” I guess that’s the world I want to live in. I come from an immigrant family from Portugal. And I’ve had very little, and I’ve had way too much, and to find that middle path, which is what yoga guides us on, is just a lot of fun.

NBL: What is it like to teach that sentiment to your students and to see them finding that fun or that meaning that you have found in yoga?

JC: So that’s the heart of the name of the studio and the logo. Sangha in Sanskrit, the language of yoga, means a yoga community, where it’s not Jeff Costa’s yoga studio. It was for a little while in the beginning of the pandemic because nobody wanted to come in and teach. And we thought, “well, I’m going to try and open.” 

But the pleasure of being in a community where I take someone’s class, and I learn something that I’m so enamored with, and then I take another class and I learn something different, and I’ll take my class, and there’s another voice. So to have a diverse group of teachers, a teaching Sangha that is pluralistic, is key for us. 

And if you look at the logo, it was hand painted by Dena Haden, who is the director of the Co-Creative Center and an artist. And so we gave her some information. [The logo] is a spoked wheel. So your energy centers, your chakras are described in this way as a spinning wheel. This spoked wheel, if you look at the perimeter, [shows that] we’re all very different. We work really hard to be unique, to have our labels, or fashion, or style. And if you follow any one of those spokes to the center, where it’s white, it’s the oneness of consciousness where there isn’t color. There’s just [the truth that] I have a beating heart, you have a beating heart. 

I’ve experienced love, like you’ve experienced love. Probably like me, you’ve experienced loss. So there’s a humanness that supersedes any of the differences. And that’s the kid I was in Dartmouth Elementary School. That’s the adult I was in Hollywood with a really diverse group of friends, traveling to experience different cultures. To have a piece of that in downtown New Bedford in this building, which was empty for three years before we signed the lease, I think is a very good thing for New Bedford.

NBL: How do you feel like you’re involved in the community outside of the fitness and yoga world?

JC: Well, I do get hired by lots of agencies and companies to work with their leadership team on rituals of wellbeing, on self-care, on demystifying the breath practices, the meditation practices or even gentle stretching. So, I love that. I live in downtown New Bedford, so whether it’s the LGBTQ network, or Northstar learning, or the Heal Center, which deals with youth affected by gun violence, there’s always opportunities to satellite out from here and meet people where they are. 

And then it’s a lesson of letting go of the outcome because if they come back to the studio, that’s great. But not everybody in Cushman Park comes to the studio. They say, “See you next summer.” They love it. And that’s the point of that program to say, OK, maybe you feel a little bit better, and maybe at one point you will find a daily practice.’ Whereas I think of the studio as like a booster shot, but your daily practice is something I’m constantly encouraging so that you don’t need me to relax, to heat up. To have a practice, I think, has been an anchor for so many people over the last couple of years that it’s become a value in my own life, my own personal practice every day.

NBL: You engage in what you call “sacred service” and lots of service in the community. Could you talk about that and what it means to you?

JC: Sacred service (seva) in Sanskrit is generosity I suppose, a giving. To serve, give, love. So I serve on the Human Relations Commission for the city. I’ve been a commissioner for nine years now. And that is about supporting justice, equity, taking complaints during mediation. So that’s a volunteer group. 

And sacred service might also mean teaching a class outdoors that’s donation based. And if you have $20, thank you. And if you don’t, thank you. Everyone is welcome to the party and money does not become another challenge, so that if someone says, “I really need this, but I can’t afford it.”

I work with the recovery community. I’m the lead teacher for a study out of Brown University, and that is working with yoga to see if it can reduce pain in people who are on a replacement for opiates. So someone with an opiate use disorder that’s taking Suboxone or methadone is the clientele in this study. And so they get classes and privates for 12 weeks. We’re maybe in year two. It’s a double blind study. 

So to be involved in that kind of work is great. And that’s the type of classes I’d like to see happen [in the studio] more. More adaptive classes. Not to keep all the people in recovery over here, and the LGBTQs over here, or the men over here. No. We want to meet you where you’re at, to be comfortable enough that you can step into any class at the studio or any class in any studio and have a sense of belonging. And knowing what’s going to happen and how you’re going to be.

The joke is that there’s no guarantee. You can do everything exactly the way I did it, and you’re gonna have a totally different outcome because we’re totally different people. Yet, there are some things at the middle of the spoked wheel that we know we can share with each other. To share, to give, to serve.

We do tree pose, with a partner kind of balancing and leaning on each other. Or we’ll go into an Utkatasana fierce pose, like a squat, and you can see people getting tired. And I’ll always say something like, “That’s the blessing of community.” When we’re all together, it makes it a little bit easier for the individual to lean on that group. So, let’s create those groups. Let’s build a strong architecture. Maybe I’m leading today, but there’s no guarantee what’s going to happen to me tomorrow. So I might be the one that needs to lean on you. And we can do that.

NBL: What do you find most rewarding about your work and your practice?

JC: I will say that what is truly the pinnacle value is planting seeds in others, whether it’s youth and then they go on to be embodied. We think we have to get a degree, but what about a double degree in computers and dance. What about setting out to be a yoga teacher, to be a fitness trainer. I don’t take credit for any of that. If you had a good experience or a bad experience, great. That’s you, and that was your experience. I honor it. But to be able to lead people for years — I’ve got clients in town that I’ve been with for years and years — and see them stay strong, stay active, stay well, to see them have some tools in their tool belt, that they’re not reacting at family dinner, that their enjoying their lives … that sort of fruition of the planted seed is beautiful.

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